Facebook Bars 800 Fake Accounts and Pages For Using Tactics Like Russia’s

Xconomy San Francisco — 

In another wave of account shutdowns, Facebook announced Thursday that it disabled more than 800 pages and accounts to prevent groups that disguised their identities from flooding its network with inauthentic content—some of it hyper-partisan political messages.

Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) has been under pressure to cleanse its pages of fake news since the discovery that Russian-backed agents using false identities tried to sway voters by spreading false and divisive messages during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The company has since purged hundreds of accounts linked to foreign entities.

Facebook says it is now rooting out other accounts that use the same tactics to amplify the spread of their posts and give the false impression that they are widely endorsed by the real population. The company shuttered 559 pages and 251 accounts it found had violated its policies against spam and coordination among account holders that mask their real identities. The company blogpost didn’t specify the national origins of the eliminated accounts. The New York Times stated that all were operated by Americans.

While Facebook has relied on its internal standards to eliminate activity on the website aimed at distorting the political debate in the United States and other countries, most of the deceptive activity Facebook says it’s targeting now has been motivated by a simple desire to make money from advertisers—like the use of clickbait about celebrities and natural disasters that has long been dangled to lure massive numbers of users to ad farms. The new twist is that fraudulent networks are using sensational political content more often to drive traffic to advertisers, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher and product manager Oscar Rodriguez wrote in a blogpost announcing the account cleanout.

The inauthentic political posts have targeted both sides of the partisan divide as the U.S. midterm elections draw near, Facebook says.

According to the New York Times, the pages and accounts Facebook eliminated today include Right Wing News and purportedly left-leaning organizations Resistance and Reverb Press. These were created by Americans, the newspaper reported. Nation in Distress, represented as a conservative outlet, was also shuttered, according to Bloomberg. Taken together, the purged accounts had millions of followers.

Social media companies have been caught in a bind as U.S. lawmakers urge them, on one hand, to protect the political debate from foreign influence campaigns, and on the other hand, accuse them of selectively censoring domestic political content.

Twitter was called to testify before Congress last month, and accused of suppressing conservative viewpoints, CNET reported. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey denied that the company’s operations reflect a political bias.

The big tech companies have come under fire when they struggle to fairly enforce internal standards against hate speech, disinformation, and fake news. President Trump has accused Google, Facebook, and Twitter of bias against the right.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at first resisted, on free speech grounds, against shutting down pages run by Alex Jones and his website Infowars, which were accused of spreading conspiracy theories. But in August Facebook said it was removing the pages because they violated its community standards against hate speech, graphic violence, and dehumanizing language. YouTube, Apple, and Twitter have also imposed restrictions on Jones and Infowars.

In its housecleaning announced today, Facebook said it was acting based on the behavior of the offending accounts, rather than their content. “Many were using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names and posted massive amounts of content across a network of groups and pages to drive traffic to their websites,” Gleicher and Rodriguez wrote.

Coordinated activity alone would not be grounds to banish an account or a network of accounts, they said. “It’s the bedrock of fundraising campaigns and grassroots organizations. But the difference is that these groups are upfront about who they are, and what they’re up to.”

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